Geneva II, in which both principal parties to the Syrian conflict can participate, offers the only realistic opportunity to work for a political settlement
Secretary John Kerry has demonstrated courage and wisdom in abandoning his predecessor’s insistence on President Bashar al-Assad’s departure as a precondition to talks for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, thereby bringing the American position closer to that of Russia and many others, including India. He has to go a step further and drop objection to Iran’s participation in the Geneva II conference. Iran has more than convincingly established its potential to prolong the conflict; it should be given an opportunity to play a constructive role.
When the Arab Spring sprouted some shoots in Syria in the spring of 2011, it was immediately seized upon by Israel, the United States and Syria’s Sunni neighbours to get rid of the Assad regime — the first set of countries to break the Tehran-Damascus axis and the neighbours to replace a Shia dispensation in Damascus by a Sunni one, however fundamentalist. There was thus ‘congruence’ — a term much in use these days — of interests among regional and extra-regional players.
Israel & Iran
For Israel, the ouster of the regime in Damascus would be of immense benefit. It would greatly weaken Iran’s clout in the region. Anything that debilitates Iran is of enormous importance to Israel, given the portrayal of Iran as posing an existential threat to the Jewish state. Hizbullah, with its massive arsenal of missiles and rockets which can reach Tel Aviv, will have its lifeline disrupted, if not irreparably breached; one of the main reasons for Israel’s restraint in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat is the capability of Hizbullah to inflict considerable damage to Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran.
For Syria’s neighbours, it was an opportunity, not to be missed, to tilt the regional sectarian balance decisively against the Shias. The loss of the Alawite regime would be a huge psychological blow to Shias and an equal boost to Sunnis everywhere. For that very reason, the two Shia regimes in the region, Iran and Iraq, were always expected to do their utmost to send succour to the Assad regime. The Hizbullah, which has everything to lose in the event of Mr. Assad’s fall has, unsurprisingly, decided to jump into the fray. The Shia-Sunni sectarian divide, ever present but significantly reignited since the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, has attained a level of intensity which will be extremely difficult to contain in the years ahead. All of Syria’s neighbours, including Israel, have become involved, and not necessarily against their wishes.
These developments, including the very real possibility of hard line Islamist groups gaining power in Damascus in the post-Assad scenario, were easily anticipatable, and were anticipated by this writer and many others. But the temptation to get rid of Mr. Assad was so great that any price was worth it, including the contingency of having to live with an Islamist government in Damascus. No doubt, the West likewise knew how events would unfold, though now it would like us to believe that things have not turned out as per its calculations. The most inexcusable mistake the western countries made was to assume that the Assad regime would fall within weeks of the beginning of the protests. Was this wishful thinking? Or, were they victims of their own propaganda?
The Russian decision to send missiles and other military equipment to Syria should not have surprised anyone. Several Sunni states have been openly arming the rebels since almost the beginning, with the approval of the ‘international community’; why should the Russian action to help the other side in the civil war be treated differently? Civil wars have always attracted external players to back opposing sides; why should Syria be an exception?
It did not call for great analytical skill to recognise that making diplomatic initiatives conditional on the prior departure of Mr. Assad was never going to work. The rebels could be excused for sticking to this line, since their strategy was to get the West more actively engaged on their side, such as by enforcing a no-fly zone, sending material and even men to the war zones, etc. (This was exactly the strategy of the Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian civil war.)
Syria’s Sunni neighbours also were not prepared to countenance the idea of talks with the Damascus regime for sectarian reasons. But if the concern of other external players with the huge loss of lives in Syria was genuine, they had every reason not to insist on the precondition for Mr. Assad’s departure, as well as to persuade the rebels and their regional supporters not to insist on it.
Use of nerve gas
Carla del Ponte, member of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, said a few weeks ago that there was strong, concrete suspicion that the rebels had used nerve gas sarin. The western countries were understandably disappointed by the statement of Ms del Ponte and largely ignored it; had she said the same about the Assad regime, the uproar, and clamour for strong action against the regime by the U.S., whose President had repeatedly said that the use of this weapon would be a game changer, can easily be imagined. This is merely to point out the obvious and not to criticise anyone of practising double standards, since every country is guilty of it sometime or the other.
There is a civil war within civil war in Syria. The Grand Coalition, cobbled together at the command of the former Secretary of State, was never going to present a unified and effective leadership. Various militia groups are fighting among themselves. Mr. Assad, who is enjoying relative military advantage at present, is making belligerent statements. He should know that great powers do not blink for a moment before deciding to reverse their positions; they really do not have permanent friends.
The Lavrov-Kerry call for Geneva II offers the only realistic chance to work for a political settlement, since it leaves open the possibility for both principal Syrian parties to participate. The difficulty is more on the rebel side, since there are nearly 150 rebel groups involved in the civil war, the most effective and disciplined of which are diehard islamists and al Qaeda-affiliated. The Syrian national coalition is a house divided, with different factions unable to reach a consensus on whether and who should participate in Geneva. The hardliners are insisting on prior departure of Mr. Assad, which even the U.S. has wisely decided not to insist on. Secretary Kerry is making strenuous effort to persuade the coalition to attend Geneva. The Damascus regime has already indicated its willingness to do so. Refusal by the rebels will give an enormous political advantage to the regime as well as to Russia and Iran.
The bitter pill
The rebels are hesitating because as of present, the regime has gained an upper hand in the fighting; no one wants to negotiate from a position of weakness. On balance, the coalition can be expected to swallow the bitter pill and decide to go to Geneva for one simple reason. If it does not, it will forfeit the possibility of getting enhanced military assistance. If it can demonstrate in Geneva the skill to put the blame for the likely failure of the talks on the regime, it will have a far better prospect of benefiting from the European decision to lift the arms embargo and Americans willing to supply lethal equipment.
Zvi Barel, an Israeli expert on such matters, wrote recently: “the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years and lead to violent spillovers to neighbouring countries … the initiative to determine when and if to set off the regional powder keg has fallen into Assad’s hands”. This is the reason, Barel suggests, the U.S. has agreed to leave Mr. Assad in power as long as negotiations will be conducted with the rebels.
If Geneva II happens, India should ask to be invited. Our participation would be in line with our official line that the solution should be political and ‘Syrian owned’. We will be in good company and we would be seen to be ‘active’ in a region where we have vital interests.
(Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for West Asia)